Some thoughts on “Paint the Revolution!”

John Dos Passos via Wikipedia

In 1927 American author John Dos Passos published “Paint the Revolution!” in the left wing magazine New Masses.  The essay reflects on the completed murals of Diego Rivera and other artists in Mexico City, and is also a scathing critique of modern art in America.

In the piece Dos Passos articulates the major “benefits” of murals over traditional fine art paintings.  On paintings in museums he writes

“look at all the little pictures … after Cezanne, Renior, Courbet, Picasso … little modern designs of a stove-pipe and a bisected violin … a horrible picking of crumbs from rich men’s tables. Occasionally a work of real talent, but what’s the good of it? Who sees it? A lot of male and female old women chattering round an exhibition; and then, if the snobmarket has been properly manipulated, some damn fool buys it and puts it away in the attic, and it makes a brief reappearance when he dies at a sale at the Anderson Galleries.”

Museums, despite the cost of entry, impose barriers. Not everyone can visit a museum, and works of art hung only in these institutions will never have the capacity to truly be seen by the public at large. Paintings in private collections serve even less of a function.  At a basic level, Dos Passos is arguing for an active art, that art must have a use.

Dos Passos sees the mural movement of Mexico as an example of art with a function. Of the program he writes:

New Masses cover, November 1928. via Wikipedia

“It wasn’t a case of ideas, of a lot of propaganda-fed people deciding that a little revolutionary art would be a good thing, it was a case of organic necessity. The revolution no more imported from Russia than the petate hates the soldiers wore, had to be explained to the people. The people couldn’t read. So the only thing to do was to paint it up on the wall.”

Murals are educational. Much like medieval church decoration, the murals in Mexico helped to teach the population about its history. Murals are not just decoration, but also tools that can be used to enrich society.

By 1927 Vasconcelos’ program had all but fallen apart, and Mexican artist were starting to seek mural commissions out side of the country. But the effort to create a national mural program was well worth it to Dos Passos:

“But, even is nothing more is done, an enormous amount of real work has been accomplished. Even if the paintings were rotten it would have been worthwhile to prove that in our day a popular graphic art was possible. “

The quality of art doesn’t matter as much as access. Even if the art is terrible, it’s still worth more to society than masterpieces locked in an attic.  In his essay, Dos Passos praises the muralists and Vasconcelos for their efforts in spreading Communist propaganda. While Dos Passos is on the far left of the spectrum, his general thoughts on the ability of murals to better the general public was shared by artists and politicians across the board in America.  In 1934 artist George Biddle published an article espousing similar sentiments, calling for artists to take an active role in society.1

What I like about Dos Passos essay (other than his awesome take down of museums and the “snobmarket”) is that he very clearly outlines many of the essentials of muralism that a lot of other critics dance around. Murals must have a function, idealy it should be to educate. Murals are not just decoration. Museums limit access, and subsequently limit the work of arts ability to have a function. Murals should be public.

These ideas become very interesting when MoMA attempts to capitalize on muralism with its 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers. The exhibition was a critical failure, I suspect because so much of the work violated what had become the public conception of a “mural”, an idea that is a whole other blog post.

1. George Biddle “An Art Renascence Under Federal Patronage.” Scribner’s Magazine, 1934